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Capital Region Democrat Paul Tonko Debates Republican Challenger Joe Vitollo

Republican Joe Vitollo and Democrat Paul Tonko
Lucas Willard
Republican Joe Vitollo and Democrat Paul Tonko

There is a rematch in the race for New York’s 20th House district seat. Paul Tonko, a longtime Democratic incumbent, is again facing a challenge from Republican Joe Vitollo. The two candidates for the Capital Region seat discussed the issues at a debate last night in Clifton Park.

Democrat Paul Tonko and Republican Joe Vitollo met for a voter forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Chamber of Southern Saratoga County.

Tonko, who has held the Capital Region seat since 2009, defeated Vitollo two years ago. With questions from the audience, much of the discussion revolved around government programs and the federal deficit.

Knocking the $1.5 trillion tax cut shepherded by Congressional Republicans, Tonko slammed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s suggestion that Social Security and Medicare are “unstable.”  

“Senator Mitch McConnell indicated that Medicaid and Medicare are the reason we are having these budget woes and the reason we need to rein those in.  Well, I’m on a bill that would allow for Social Security to be further strengthened by requiring those over $400,000 to pay their fair contribution,” said Tonko.

Vitollo faulted Congress for weakening Social Security by borrowing against it, tying the votes to Tonko.

“Back in 2012 and 2010, they borrowed $125 billion without the issuing of bonds – the first time in Congressional history that they did that, which means they have no intention of paying it back,” said Vitollo.

The back and forth continued as Tonko accused Congressional Republicans of seeking to privatize Social Security.

“There is no one has fought harder to keep Social Security from privatization. And I think that is the effort underway,” said Tonko.

Vitollo said Social Security should not be treated as a “bank account” to balance the budget.

“It’s not solvent because Congress is gutting it, not the administration,” said Vitollo.

Outlining their philosophies on how government should regulate the private sector, Tonko used provisions in the Affordable Care Act as examples as to how regulations can be effective.

“So issues like pre-existing conditions. Issues like discontinuing coverage in the midst of a catastrophic illness. Filling the doughnut hole so that seniors don’t have to reach into their pocket for the Medicare portion that they’ve been reaching to,” said Tonko.

Vitollo, an emergency room nurse, criticized “big government” and healthcare regulation – he told a story of a woman who faced $2,700 in copays. But he said anyone in need of care should not be “prejudiced against.”

He supports insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

“And in my experience, in the emergency room, I have yet to see one person turned away,” said Vitollo.

Vitollo defended President Donald Trump, who has claimed he would protect coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. Tonko doubts Trump’s promise and took shots against Republicans’ action on Capitol Hill.

“I think it’s important to note, if Joe wins this election, we’ll need his voice in the Republican caucus because they passed a measure that said pre-existing conditions should be left to the states,” said Tonko.

Before Tonko was elected to Congress, he served as a state Assemblyman for more than two decades. Vitolllo said he supports term limits and seeks fresh voices in government.

“The problem is people get into power and they build up huge bank accounts and they build up huge power control bodies, and they manipulate,” said Vitollo.

Tonko, who often spoke of his record, defended his long political career.

“It takes quite a while to learn the policy, to develop the arguments, to develop the public positions with your colleagues with whom you need to participate to get things done,” said Tonko.

Audio of the voter forum with Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko and Republican Joe Vitollo

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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